By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
Jeff Johnson knows how to make his audiences squirm. The young, black radio and TV political commentator waits for the discussion to turn to the topic being talked about ceaselessly, incessantly, ad nauseam: the meaning of the barrier-breaking election of Barack Obama.
Then, in his laid-back style, he says, "The real issue for me is that history is not enough." That's when the mood becomes tense.
"Black folks, in particular, get irritated," says Johnson, who travels the lecture circuit, hosts a half-hour show on Black Entertainment Television and has a weekly spot for social criticism on a radio program popular with black listeners. Get past "Obama the personality" and see "Obama the president," he says. "Otherwise all you're being is a political-celebrity groupie instead of a citizen. . . . It starts with acknowledging he's my president, and not my homie."
As the nation's first black president settles into the office, a division is deepening between two groups of African Americans: those who want to continue to praise Obama and his historic ascendancy, and those who want to examine him more critically now that the election is over.
Johnson is one of a growing number of black academics, commentators and authors determined to press Obama on issues such as the elimination of racial profiling and the double-digit unemployment rate among blacks.
But doing so has put them at odds with others in the black community. Love for the Obamas is thick among African Americans -- 91 percent of whom view the president favorably, compared with 59 percent of the total population, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month -- and as a result, the African American punditry finds itself navigating new ground.
They are learning to negotiate what talk show host and author Tavis Smiley calls an "unfamiliar dance." If you push too forcefully, he says he has learned, you risk your credibility in the community.
That's what happened to Smiley last year, when he was the one in the commentator's chair that Jeff Johnson now sits in on Tom Joyner's syndicated morning radio program. During the heated Democratic primary, Smiley questioned Obama's decision not to attend his annual State of the Black Union conference and said he hoped Obama would make it through the campaign "with his soul intact."
The push-back was "brutal," Smiley recalls. Angry listeners called him a "sellout," an "Obama hater" and "Uncle Tom." Surprised and hurt, Smiley left Joyner's show but now uses the rough patch to make the case for a new book he co-wrote, "Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise."
The book, Smiley's third about issues facing black Americans, has a picture of Obama on the cover and outlines the president's promises during the campaign to elevate the status of his fellow African Americans. Smiley wants readers to use the book as a tool to measure the new administration.
"If President Obama succeeds, there is the chance that we will have another person of color as president. If he succeeds, there is the chance that we will at some point have a woman as president. But if he fails . . . it may be another 400 years before we get another African American president," Smiley says, arguing that tough questions will make Obama a better leader.
"I know what I'm up against," he continues, because he is still accused of "casting aspersion on Barack Obama or having some issue with Barack Obama."
What he is up against are people like Leutisha Stills, a regular blogger on the African American opinion site Jack and Jill Politics. She dismisses anything Smiley has to say about Obama because he is "always going negative."
"I cannot be on the Haterade fest," Stills says. "It appears that whatever Mr. Obama tends to do, no matter what, somebody is going to put a negative spin on it. Whether I agree with his policies or not, from appearances' sake he's trying to do what he promised in his campaign."
Patricia Wilson-Smith also thinks Obama is deserving only of praise at this point.
Wilson-Smith, who started the volunteer group Black Women for Obama just after he announced his candidacy, says it is way too soon for people to ask Obama to fix long-held racial disparities. "The fact that he is a black man doesn't mean he's going to get in office and wave a magic wand and solve all the black community's problems," she says. "To jump all over him at this point because they haven't seen anything specific toward the black condition, when he has two wars to deal with and an economy failing, is a little silly."
The Obama team has further complicated the critical discussion by deftly managing relationships with the constituencies it ignited during the campaign, providing access and information and defusing complaints before they become public battles. African Americans are one of the groups to whom the team has catered.
The president skipped schmoozing with the Washington press corps at the Gridiron Club last month, but he and the first lady hosted a reception in the State Dining Room for members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization of black newspapers. The group recently named the Obama family its Newsmaker of the Year.
Obama also called black talk radio host Warren Ballentine's show in late February to push his stimulus package. A couple of weeks later, the president appeared via satellite at Smiley's State of the Black Union -- the same conference he skipped last year.
Members of his team have also been working closely with leaders of black civil rights groups, such as Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, who praised Obama for committing more money to job training and summer youth employment programs in the stimulus package.
"It's not about being a second-guessing cynic," Morial says of his approach toward assessing Obama. "That's not what brings change."
Political blogger Faye Anderson disagrees. "Black folks don't know what to do with a black president," she says. "We really can't have a double standard." She accuses the traditional civil rights groups of "not doing what they would do if it was someone other than a black man in office."
To hold Obama accountable, she created the Tracking Change wiki to follow the stimulus money and document whether a proportionate share reaches the black community.
Glen Ford, who co-edits the left-leaning Black Agenda Report, says the pull to support Obama is powerful for blacks. When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Ford recalls, editors at the online publication endorsed him even though he was too middle-of-the-road for their tastes. "We did not want to be perceived as the proverbial crabs in a barrel trying to bring a brother down," Ford says.
But as Obama settles into his presidency, Ford says, it would be irresponsible not to look at him critically. He puts it this way: "We broke out of our cowardice."
Johnson, of BET and the Tom Joyner show, describes a similar transformation.
He was so moved during the inauguration ceremonies that he cried on air while hosting BET's coverage. But that was the day his celebration stopped and his question quickly became: "Now what's he going to do?"
"With the state of the economy, the fact that we're at war on at least two fronts, we're dealing with 50 percent dropout rates for some high school students, we're losing jobs -- we don't have time to celebrate nothing," Johnson says. "Anybody who cares about making history more than they care about the transformation of their community and their country has a real misplaced understanding of what making history is supposed to mean. . . . The person that I believe we voted for doesn't want us to continue to celebrate him."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.